Cole: Implement BMPs and write down pertinent information on water quality
Worland — “There are third parties actively sampling water on grazing allotments in this state,” says Nephi Cole, Watershed Coordinator for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD). “Are they going to find E. coli? Yes, in some cases they certainly will.”
“E. coli can be found in many streams within the state at any given time. So what can we as land managers and users do?” asks Cole. “You can know what the possible sources of E. coli are, implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) to address issues, record what you are doing, and do it in good faith. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important.”
“If you are proactively managing to address non-point source pollution, chances are that people looking for problems will move on to someone who isn’t,” says Cole.
Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a group that opposes domestic livestock grazing on federal lands, is sampling water with the intention of removing livestock grazing from all federally managed lands. The State of Wyoming accepts water quality information submitted by WWP, if they follow their sampling and analysis plan and pass quality assurance and quality control. There are no specific credentials required of an individual or organization that wishes to have their water quality data accepted by the State of Wyoming, however, they must possess “specialized training and have field experience” as defined by the state’s credible data statutes. In general, anyone with a Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) approved sampling and analysis plan can submit water quality data to the state for review.
So what is the problem with E. coli? Environmentalists are challenging grazing permit renewals based on water quality, range data, and other factors. A lack of data opens the door for a challenge. That’s why Cole says implementing BMPs and keeping a written record is so important.
E. coli is a bacteria commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals, including humans, livestock and wildlife. Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some, such as serotype 0157:H7, can cause serious illness in humans. Most waterways have some levels of E. coli with the level varying from season to season, day to day and even at different times of day. “In some instances we have seen that depending on the time of day sampled, you had a huge level of variation,” comments Cole.
Livestock are often blamed, however, waterways like Dry Creek and Johnny Creek in the Big Horn Mountains have tested high for E. coli despite the fact that livestock have not grazed there for three or more years.
If high levels of E. coli are found the Clean Water Act requires the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). A TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards, and an allocation of that amount to the pollutant’s sources, according to the EPA. Each TMDL is different, depending on the size and nature of each waterbody.
In 1996, citizen organizations brought 40 legal actions against the EPA in 38 states, seeking listing of waters and development of TMDLs. Under court order or consent decrees in several states, the EPA was required to ensure that TMDLs are established.
“How does litigation like the Pole Mountain case fit into this picture, and what are the possible ramifications, both good and bad, for the permit holders,” Cole asks. “The Pole Mountain lawsuit was based inpart on the Clean Water Act, and the judge ruled the U.S. Forest Service was in compliance because they were implementing BMPs in good faith, which is what the law requires. The law does not require that you necessarily solve the problem, just that you address it through the best possible management. It is important to keep a record of your actions so that if a question arises, you have that information.”
He continues, “In a recent EPA presentation, they noted that non-source point source pollution would be a priority for them in the future. They also said that in their estimation, roughly 80 percent of non-point source pollution is related to agriculture. Not all of us agree with that sentiment, but that gives a fairly strong indication of the EPA view of responsible parties. In Wyoming, around 70 percent of our impairments are related to E. coli. Livestock are one of the many contributors, as are all warm-blooded animals.”
Cole says, “It is a mistake to assume that livestock, or any one use can or should be singled out. When it comes to non-point source pollution, the main culprit is gravity. When rain falls on the earth and flows over land, you will have erosion, and thus, pollution. What can you do about it? There are practices that we can use to minimize our impacts in a given area. These are BMPs, like water gaps, off-site water, and managed grazing. The NRCS and local conservations districts play an integral role in assisting with this E. coli issue by conducting water sampling and analysis, planning and assisting producers in the implementation of BMPs.” Funding is available through a variety of sources, by working with the NRCS, local conservation districts, and others.
Cole further explains most waters are classified as primary contact recreational waters by default, and held to a standard of 126 colony-forming units (cfu’s) per 100 ml of water. A process exists to petition the DEQ for a change to secondary use classification if a stream is not going to be used for recreational activities like swimming or other full body contact recreation. These “secondary streams” are held to a slightly lower standard of 630 cfu/100 ml.
Cole addressed about 50 attendees at the Guardians of the Range annual meeting in Worland on Feb. 7. WACD will be host a training on water quality assessment, including stream classification, during the week of March 23 in Riverton. Interested parties should talk to their local conservation district for more information. Echo Renner is a correspondent for the WLR, and can be reached at email@example.com.